The Black Box Principle

Why do professions rely on a lack of transparency? Research shows there's a better way.

Published on 
September 6, 2021
Scott founded TriArch in 2004. He is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Tribe and he serves as our Director of Architecture.

Did you know that a black box on an airplane is actually orange?  Why is it called a black box?  I believe the answer lies in the complexity of what’s inside of it.  It is designed to be extremely durable and water-proof at an incredibly high pressure, while also being able to “ping” listening devices and maintaining the last hour of communication and data on an aircraft before a crash.  The term black box was a World War II British phrase, originating with the development of radio, radar, and electronic navigational aids in British and Allied combat aircraft. In other words, stuff that the common person doesn't know much about.

When a magician creates an illusion, part of the process is to place a veil over the trick while appearing not to do so.  In other words, the illusion is a “black box” that can’t be opened or else the illusion is ruined.  

Does it work to hide your processes?

Many occupations rely on this same principle to have long-term success.  A car salesman relies on the black box of costing invoices so that they have room to “deal” with a buyer.  Of course, the internet is starting to make inroads into people being able to peer inside of this black box, but it’s still there.  

Many professional occupations rely on this black box principle so that they become sought after by their clientele.  If what I know can be sealed away when I’m solving your problem, then you will still need me for the next problem.  Whether it’s a doctor, a lawyer, a CPA, an attorney, an engineer, or an architect—we all rely on our magic shows of illusion so that you will need to hire us for the next time.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification.  Lay people hire professionals to give them expert advice in law, taxes, etc.  We find someone we trust, and we hire them to protect us from our lack of knowledge in that area.  Many architects take advantage of this trust and continue to create the illusion of some sort of magic happening when the design process is under way.  They meet with the client, assess their needs, then go away for weeks at a time so they can put together an immaculate design that will blow away the client’s expectations.  Only it often fails do so.  

Another way forward

I have learned through the years that the more transparent I am with the process of design to our clients, the more they buy in to the final solution—which is ultimately what every architect aspires to do.  If there is a way to create more trust, more collaboration, and faster processes, why wouldn’t all architects embrace that?  The answer is they want to maintain the illusion.  They rely on the black box to enhance their mystique.  Whether it’s a STAR-chitect or a utlitiarian architect, many will hide behind codes and high-brow conceptual thinking to let you know that you couldn’t possibly understand what they are doing until it is ready to show you.

But research is showing more and more that open-source, open-process, open-collaboration relationships are much more bonding than ones built on smoke and mirrors.  Just be honest, authentic, and open with your relationships.  Show them your expertise without fear of your knowledge being ripped off or pirated.  

Ultimately, people want this transparency much more than a black box.

Scott founded TriArch in 2004. He is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Tribe and he serves as our Director of Architecture.